Japanese dining doesn't get much more authentic or intimate on this side of the Pacific than at Tempura Endo. The value proposition here may be questionable, but nevertheless there’s no doubt that this place cares deeply for its ingredients and the 500-year tradition behind its cuisine.
For those unfamiliar, tempura is a Japanese deep-fry cooking method. In Endo’s case, chefs prepare each course in front of their guests, using only the highest-quality oils, meticulously stirred batter, black bean soy sauce and a lineup of salts that pair with specific items. Add in premium-grade sashimi and wagyu beef to make this as high-end of an experience as possible. Prix-fixe menus range from 10 – 17 courses, or $150 - $280.
Owner Koichi Endo’s restaurant empire resides exclusively in Kyoto, Japan with the exception of this tiny spot on Santa Monica Boulevard. The tasting room seats eight, with space for a few more in adjacent nooks. Add in the tea room, where guests will go in one at a time to witness matcha made in a ceremonious fashion.
While the ambiance is intimate, Endo’s feel doesn’t match up to its food quality—a rarity nowadays considering the reverse is much more common. This small space is sparsely dressed up with kitschy décor. You can see the bright blue bathroom signs from your seat in the tasting room. Chefs unload ingredients onto the counter from cheap Tupperware. Endo seems more like a dive along Westwood Boulevard than a high-end establishment in Beverly Hills.
Additionally, each course is literally two bites of relatively light food. You will likely need to eat again as soon as you leave Tempura Endo’s doors.
Hats off to the restaurant staff for preparing a truly authentic Far East dining experience, but the atmosphere needs to live up to the price point. It’s hard to justify dropping $300+ for the equivalent of a moderate snack in this kind of setting.
Tempura Endo is located at 9777 S Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Open 5 p.m. – midnight 7 days/week. Out-the-door price for mid-tier prix fixe menu and 1-2 drinks is ~$300/person. Tempura Endo can be reached at (310) 274-2201 or online.
For an illustrious restaurant that typically books out months in advance, there’s a large crowd willing to pay hard cash for a last-minute reservation. While the act of paying for a reservation has long been considered faux paus, there’s another group making a serious push to create this kind of marketplace. App-makers and some business-savvy industry professionals recognize the balance of supply and demand. Demand clearly exceeds supply at the hottest tickets in town, so why not charge for those sacred 7 – 9pm slots, shrinking demand and increasing profitability at the same time?
Apps such as Resy, which allows users to buy last-minute reservations from partnering restaurants, are gaining traction. In the same way that restaurants allocate a few spots to OpenTable, they do the same for Resy, only Resy charges the customer while OpenTable does not. There are talks of people bidding for reservations [think eBay for restaurants] and even brokers who buy and sell reservations in the same way as one would trade stocks.
As this movement begins to take form, owners should keep tabs on how apps like Resy evolve, which major restaurants join in, and how both parties perform financially moving forward. How far will the movement go…will people be paying for all prime-time reservations in the same way that airline passengers pay for exit seats, or will there be a limit to the percentage of tables available for a charge? Consider the following thoughts in regard to whether your restaurant fits this bill:
Balancing short-term profit and long-term loyalty
There are two types of high-demand restaurants: those in-demand due to prestige [Think Gordon Ramsay Steak] and those in-demand due to volume and value [Think Mon Ami Gabi for its low price point and PF Chang’s for its national presence]. If your restaurant is in the prestige category, you should think twice before charging for reservations.
Think about it from a loyalty perspective. Prestigious restaurants likely rely on repeat customers for more than half of their revenue [Food tourism phenomena, such as Per Se and Noma, where people travel specifically to eat there, are exceptions]. If your 7pm Tuesday regular gets booted out by a first-timer willing to pay $25 up front, they’re going to be pretty upset and may take their business elsewhere. Same goes if your loyalists find themselves having to pay for something that was once free. Chances are that the money doesn’t matter to this crowd, but it’s the principle behind the charge that is most damaging.
"For those places with no-reservations policies, where many potential patrons don’t even show up because they don’t want to risk waiting in a long line, this system could open up a whole new customer base."
If you’re a high-volume, low-price establishment that has a line out the door every night, maybe you could stand to make some easy bucks by charging for a few guaranteed reservations. For those places with no-reservations policies, where many potential patrons don’t even show up because they don’t want to risk waiting in a long line, this system could open up a whole new customer base. For spots who see too many last-minute cancellations, this could provide some great security.
Monitoring bidding and brokering
If you ever find yourself in a bidding market, be sure that your bid prices align with your brand image. A famous $10 burger spot isn’t going to get as much volume over time when people find out it costs $100 just to get a table. At the same time, a fine French establishment won’t look too fancy if Saturday night bids topped out at 35 cents. Set minimums and maximums [i.e. have a ‘buy now’ option for your max price] and monitor how they affect your volume and overall sales.
Brokering, while potentially helpful to get your restaurant’s name out there, can be quite dangerous. Allowing someone to buy multiple reservations to sell off individually can put your restaurant in a shady light, and can certainly upset someone looking to make/buy a reservation only to find out that they’re all taken as soon as they open up. You may not even intend to sell to brokers, but one person could create dozens of fake accounts to buy in bulk anyway.
Serious legal issues may unfold here. If you do decide to charge for reservations, be sure to seek regular online feedback to detect potential underground brokering as soon as possible.
Know yourself and your customer. Can you handle upsetting some people to reap profit from others? Do you have the demand to support charging for reservations? Are you willing to take the risks associated with this new, fragile marketplace?
In the first part of this article, we covered the benefits and costs of designing a restaurant brand around signature menu items, atmosphere and people. Here are a few key takeaways to refresh your memory:
The following items continue where the list left off. Location, service and style are all integral elements of a restaurant’s brand and overall well-being, and weighing them according to your target market and business model will put you on the right track to increased traffic, sales and profit.
Relying on prime real estate is a great way to generate foot traffic, but be sure to align your restaurant with the local demographic. Proximity to the theater, park, bar, and the like, as well as falling along a ‘restaurant row’ exposes restaurants to a broader user base and reduces the need for marketing to new customers. These locations come at a price, however, and your restaurant’s business model must align with the location’s natural crowd in order to afford the lease.
Observe the people who frequent the area. Note their age range, the way they dress, and how your restaurant can best cater to that demographic. Better yet, is there a demographic you see enjoying the area, but not dining there? A row of trendy eateries may not appeal to a large older population who frequents the street, so you could fill that niche. If by a theater, prepare for crowds who want a quick bit before the show as well as those who want to linger after it ends.
Location, like atmosphere, is more of a first-time marketing tool rather than a way to build loyalty. Aligning your restaurant with the surrounding features and crowd will help make it into an integral part of the location itself.
Some restaurants can offer a truly distinguished service experience, but approach this one with caution. Every customer wants, and expects, great service no matter where they dine. Service can only stand out above other categories if it is exceptionally personal [Alize, Palms], exceptionally quick [Jimmy John’s] or exceptionally entertaining [Dick’s Last Resort]. Distinguished service often comes at a high labor cost, requiring more staff present to deliver personalized or quick service.
While service is not typically the backbone of a restaurant, your staff directly represents your restaurant brand. Their physical appearance, interactions with guests, menu knowledge and a numerous other components can easily tie into other brand components. Leverage your service staff to promote your brand to the customer.
Style, while a bit ambiguous, provides the most flexibility and highest potential for a restaurant brand to grow and evolve. Whether you pride yourself in top-quality ingredients, larger-than-life portions, creative fusions, or another standout feature, customers will think of your restaurant for its overall approach rather than a particular menu item, staff member or design.
Be wary of creating your restaurant’s style around a particular food trend. These trends come and go in the same way as menu items and designs, albeit with a longer shelf life and more flexibility to adapt to new trends. If you’re looking to develop a farm-to-table concept, for example, it would be best to center the restaurant around wholesome and natural qualities, which are essentially evergreen in their appeal, rather than slapping ‘farm-to-table’ on every piece of marketing material. When the farm-to-table craze dies down and can no longer demand a premium price point, your restaurant will thrive with the exact same product.
As is the case with most things in life, keep your style in moderation. Rolling out with pizza, burgers, tacos and chow mien under the theme of quality ingredients will alienate customers by not specializing enough. But defining your restaurant by its style, when done correctly, will allow you to change menus, chefs, locations and the like while retaining the core of your identity.
Again, this is by no means an exhaustive list of restaurant branding opportunities, but should provide a valuable baseline for helping new restaurant owners choose their direction. No branding element is particularly better than another, and can be used in conjunction with each other to develop an integrated experience. It comes down to the owner’s gut to choose one brand element, then experiment with additional supplements to maximize your restaurant’s value.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.